A shocking confrontation with privilege at Barry Farm

Detrice Belt (left), has lived at Barry Farm community for 18 years. Photo by Matailong Du for Street Sense. Taken from Flickr under the Creative Commons License

By Eli Fosl

This piece is a sidebar companion to my profile on the activists fighting to save Barry Farm from redevelopment.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve really heard a gun go off. I grew up white in a suburban neighborhood with pacifist parents and few friends outside my area code. Eventually I grew up and got out of my bubble, but privilege doesn’t just evaporate with years. By the time I started reporting in Anacostia, I was accustomed to being an outsider. Still, Barry Farm was something completely new for me. When gun sounds from down the block interrupted the meeting I was covering one Monday, a lot of things happened. None of those things, however, were what I expected, and each carried their own weight and message.

The first thing that happened was, in fact, nothing at all. I was perturbed by the shots, even a little scared, but no one else in the streetlight-lit circle paid any notice. These sounds were just part of the background, a birdsong of their environment. After a few seconds passed, however, the owner of the patio where we sat, Paulette Matthews said she needed to text her children.

“I don’t like when they’re out and I hear gun sounds like that,” she had said. Her children are always on her mind. At high school age, they are at more risk than anyone for violent crime.

Finally, concern did begin to cross the faces of the women around me. Some words of comfort were spoken about the sounds. It wasn’t for a few minutes, however, that I realized that the comfort wasn’t meant for the organizers, it wasn’t meant for Ms. Paulette—it was meant solely for me.

Did my eyes widen? Did I move with a start? I can’t remember, but somehow it had been obvious that I was shaken by the shots. More likely than not, it wasn’t any action at all. Simply my character: a white American University student who lived in Friendship Heights, had clued the women in to my fear. “Don’t end up like one of those other American students,” Schyla said to me. She was referring to Matt Shlonsky, an AU graduate who had been shot and killed near the Shaw Metro station.

Here were women who were talking about the occupation of their own homes in the face of displacement, of cruel eviction, and yet they took the time from their planning to comfort me. Me, an outsider at best and a possible agent of gentrification at worst. When the ambulances rolled down the street, I put my finger on what I’d heard. I’d heard a shooting. A shooting that, as one woman pointed out, wouldn’t be covered by the news the next morning, or any morning for that matter. If I’d been the one in that ambulance, I would have been on The Washington Post’s front page.

As a white reporter, it is through instances like this I have been able to momentarily see my surroundings through my own veil of privilege. But every day is a process of learning about my own identity and my place in this discourse. D.C. has one of the highest black populations of all our nation’s largest cities. From some places in Barry Farm, where the hills bring you up high enough, you can see the United States Capitol peering down on you. As journalists, as people who hold the international megaphone that is media, we need to take a look at where we stand when we report. We need to look at whose voices we send clamoring to our audiences all over the world, and whose voices we –intentionally or not—perpetually ignore.

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